County board approves second reading of buffer law

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Additional changes likely to local buffer law

Despite the need for wording changes in the months ahead, Swift County’s Board of Commissioners passed the second reading of its buffer law at its meeting last Wednesday.

With that second reading, the ordinance is now on a path to becoming law that will set down the rules for the installation of buffers on public waters and public ditches, the enforcement of the law, and the penalties for those who fail to comply.

While a small group of people showed up at the public hearing for the second reading Dec. 6, only Torning Township farmer Allen Saunders questioned its provisions.

Swift County Environmental Services Director Scott Collins told commissioners that he had not received any calls since the approval of the first reading of the ordinance at the Nov. 21 meeting and only a few comments from people.

Minnesota is implementing its buffer law in two stages. Buffers of at least 30 feet wide and an average of 50 feet wide were required by the state’s public streams, rivers, lakes, and wetlands as of Nov. 1. Starting Nov. 1, 2018, 16.5-foot buffers must be installed on public ditches.

Nearly 98 percent of the county’s parcels by public waters requiring a buffer are in compliance with the law, the Swift County Soil and Water Conservation District’s Andy Albertson told commissioners last month.

Commissioners agreed last June to be the enforcement authority for the state buffer law giving farmland owners someone local rather than a state enforcement officer.

By agreeing to be the enforcement agency, the county is receiving $141,114 from the state for its expenses in 2017 and another $176,392 for 2018.

Counties have two options for penalizing those who don’t comply with the law. They can issue the person an Administrative Penalty Order (APO) with a fine, or charge the person criminally. Criminal charges could result in misdemeanor charges with a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Swift County’s proposed ordinance provides for civil penalties, not criminal penalties.

Minnesota’s Board of Water & Soil Resources (BWSR) now has 60 days to review the county’s ordinance and recommend any changes. Those changes will not affect the law’s implementation, only clarify its provisions the county has been told by its ditch law legal advisor Rinke Noonan law firm of St. Cloud and by Swift County Attorney Danielle Olson.

“The county draft ordinance closely follows the model ordinance and appears to contain adequate provisions to ensure compliance and effective enforcement,” the BWSR’s Travis Gurmundson informed the county back in September by letter.  “However, there needs to be some assurances where it transfers authority between the county and the SWCD.”

Though Swift County will enforce the buffer ordinance, the county Soil & Water Conservation District staff will be checking rural properties for compliance with the law.....


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